Profitable Cows Will Fit Environment

Fodder for Thought

Supplemental feeding and arid environments, in particular, cannot coexist.

Published on: September 27, 2012

It’s been determined that cow size is an important factor in the economic efficiency of a cowherd. However, it is still more important the cow fit her environment.

This summer during the Joint Annual Meeting of several animal and dairy science groups in Phoenix, Arizona, I had the opportunity to listen to a symposium focused on beef production in arid environments. Barry Dunn of South Dakota State University addressed this subject of the ‘cow fit to environment’ ideology.

Dunn described the basic measure of fitness in the cowherd as a challenge of being both biologically and economically efficient in its environment. This challenge would be overcome by a cow that is capable of reproducing annually given the available feed in its environment.

Dunn suggested that this ability is even more critical for cows living in arid environments, as forage resources can be limited by drought and are subject to more extreme changes in supply. Further, he said imported supplemental feed cost is expensive.

To better determine which cows fit a particular environment, he noted that a functional understanding of nutrient partitioning of feed energy is necessary. It is also important to understand that genetic selection as a tool in achieving this goal is limited due to a lower level of heritability for reproductive traits versus other more economically important traits.

However, by far the most intriguing statement from Dunn was the following: "In the future, masking problems associated with raising cattle in arid environments that do not fit by supplementing them with imported feed resources could be increasingly problematic, as transportation costs, as well as opportunity costs for alternative uses, price supplements beyond economic reason."

Dunn is spot on with this statement. The masking of the problem only leads to increased supplemental feed costs, and in turn significant decreases in profitability. The common factor behind this tactic is an assumed need to increase production. However, in a world of high-priced inputs, this methodology is not sustainable for cow-calf producers.

Instead, the more logical approach is to match cow size to the available forage resources of the cow’s environment. Focusing selection and culling management on environment-appropriate cow size will produce cattle capable of surviving on what feed resources the ranch provides. This in turn reduces needed inputs and increases profit potential. In the end, the cow that fits her environment and is the most economically efficient will be the most profitable.